Tips for healthy and happy eating on Thanksgiving and during the holiday season from a Mass General nutritionist.

For many, this time of year can be anxiety-driven, particularly if healthy eating is a priority. Communal eating during the holidays can also make it more challenging to eat healthfully. As the writer Erma Bombeck once said, “I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage.”

Avoid fasting prior to the main event. If you arrive at your gathering starving, you are more likely to overeat.

Moderation and Sanity

An extra ladle of gravy or slice of apple pie on Thanksgiving will not throw your diet into chaos, but daily “extras” until your New Year’s resolution kicks in have significant potential to derail healthy habits. Maintain a sense of moderation—and of sanity—during the holidays by putting the season in context.

Remember—regardless of what you are eating—portions still matter. Use your hand to assess what is on your plate. The recommended serving of protein should fit in the palm of your hand. For most people this is roughly a four-ounce portion, but it also depends on other factors, like body size and sex. Make a fist with your hand to provide a general guideline for your starch size at meals. (In contrast, you’ll want to strive to eat two fists of vegetables.)

Eating with Perspective

It is also important to maintain perspective on your overall diet and avoid black-and-white thinking around your holiday spread. For instance, white meat is often touted as “healthier” than dark meat. White mean is leaner, but not by much, especially if you are mindful of your portions. One ounce of white turkey meat has about 40 calories and no saturated fat—which is the type of fat that has been linked to elevated cholesterol levels. In contrast, one ounce of dark meat has about 45 calories and 0.5 grams of saturated fat.

The recommended serving of protein should fit in the palm of your hand.
The recommended serving of protein should fit in the palm of your hand.

This difference will not matter much if you are mindful about how much you are eating. Dark meat also has more zinc, iron, and B-vitamins and is still lower in fat than many cuts of red meat, so it can be a nice option for individuals who may be prone to anemia.

In addition, many foods served this time of year are loaded with benefits. For instance, research has shown eating cruciferous fall vegetables (think broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts) may help reduce signs of inflammation, a marker of many diseases.

Butternut squash is also readily available in colder months and is comparatively low in calories in contrast to other starches, like stuffing and mashed potatoes, which have about 250 calories per cup on average, compared to 80 for the butternut. (Add a tablespoon of butter and you’ll add 100 additional calories.) Regardless, the winter squash is also a good source of vitamin A and C, two nutrients that help promote a healthy immune system. (The same goes for pumpkin.) Eating these foods once a year won’t cut it though, it takes regular consumption to offer protection.

Healthy eating is built on long-term habits, not single days.

Tips for Thanksgiving Day

Avoid fasting prior to the main event. If you arrive at your gathering starving, you are more likely to overeat. Once the buffet table is set, observe the entire spread before taking any food. Decide which foods are worth the splurge and which you can leave behind for the day.

Lastly, if you end up overdoing it more than you had hoped, try not to fret. Healthy eating is built on long-term habits, not single days. It also helps to treat food as a helpful partner, rather than the enemy. As Oscar Wilde once said, “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.”

Emily Gelsomin, RD, LDN
Emily Gelsomin, RD, LDN

Emily Gelsomin, MLA, RD, LDN, is a senior clinical nutrition specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. As a registered dietitian, she counsels on medical nutrition therapy on an outpatient basis and works extensively with Be Fit, the hospital’s employee wellness program.

Jointly sponsored by The Clubs at Charles River Park and MGH Nutrition and Food Services, the 10-week program focuses on helping participants “Be Fit and Eat Right.” Every ten weeks, employees from different departments within the hospital compete with each other as they make a commitment to Be Fit. Through the creation of a social environment at the workplace, participants are supported to make progress in personal lifestyle changes with the help of a unique support system that includes a dedicated nutritionist and personal trainer.

Be Fit strives to create a milieu of wellness that extends beyond the 10-week curriculum by offering features to those who are not part of the intensive program. This includes the creation of Choose Well, Eat Well, a rating system designed to help both employees and patients increase awareness of healthy choices at retail eateries within the hospital. It also includes a monthly e-mail with a timely nutrition tip.